Since I gave up hope, I feel a lot better

A major writing project is a strange emotional journey. When you’re writing a paper or a blog post, you can often let your excitement about the idea carry you. I try to convince my students not to wait around for inspiration, but within limits, it can work for short projects. Such a strategy is not possible for a longer piece of writing, however. Even if you are unusually prone to “inspiration,” you are mostly deprived of the excitement of newness.

Routinization is the only way to make progress, and that leads to a growing disconnect between your writing process and your emotional state. You can no longer trust your own judgment about the project on a day-to-day basis — you have to trust your original concept and the plan you’ve devised to execute it. You have to be able to meet your wordcount even on those days when you are fully convinced that your project is utter nonsense that no one will read and everyone will mock and revile. Only then have you really become a writer.

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How do you write?

In the last few days, I’ve talked with a couple colleagues who have very different approaches to writing, from me and from each other. One always seems to have reams of material on hand, which he shapes into books and articles. Another seems unable to produce much other than in marathon sessions where he winds up generating a super-abundance of material that then needs to be vastly cut down to fit within the bounds of the project he’s working on.

My technique is much more systematic and goal-oriented than either. I rarely produce academic writing purely “on spec,” without knowing what project it’s contributing toward. Even with the devil book, which is strangely the first book I’ve written without having a contract in hand (or the need to produce a dissertation), I’ve had a specific publisher in mind the whole time and have been in dialogue with the editor. I’m also much more regimented in my approach — I typically have an overall outline in mind and try to write one section of a chapter each day while I’m writing, in such a way as to set up the next section. This usually results in me writing just the right amount, with very little unused material left over.

I developed my approach under the emergency conditions of trying to write Zizek and Theology between my coursework and qualifying exams. I spent a couple days “writing all day” — i.e., dicking around most of the time and feeling guilty I wasn’t writing — and realized that was not going to work. I stumbled onto the approach of more focused sessions of two or three hours, devoted to one specific step in my argument. I also found that to make the process sustainable day-to-day, I sometimes had to force myself to wait until the next day to write the next section, because when I did too much one day, I normally paid for it with a totally lost day soon after.

I’ve been operating under those emergency measures ever since, and it’s worked pretty well. My method has proven adaptable to talks and articles, and it got me through a dissertation, a trilogy of shorter books, and it’s now serving me well for the devil book so far.

I have nagging doubts, though. I wonder if my thinking is becoming too regimented along with my writing technique. I wonder if I would benefit from a more open-ended approach, or even from the occasional marathon session — arguably the best chapter of Politics of Redemption, the Anselm chapter, came out of an uncharacteristic marathon session. My approach has allowed me to do a lot, but are there things it’s keeping me from doing? Maybe once I finish up the devil I can let myself explore a little more.

But what about you, readers? How do you structure your writing time? How did you arrive at your chosen method? Have you experimented with various approaches?

Writing to order

Over the last couple weeks, I have been working on a report for a committee at school. It started in a subcommittee made up of four people, but the intention was to produce a report that would reflect the whole committee, so there were subsequent rounds of editing that may or may not be over even as we speak. The report is on an issue that is important to me, but at this point, I can’t even gauge whether it reflects “my views” — nor what that would even mean or if it’s relevant. Even in its first draft, my goal was mostly to capture the views of my subcommittee members (in this case, all students).

I like to think that it still hangs together as a piece of writing and doesn’t have the open seams one associates with writing “by committee.” There’s a certain pride in the craftsmanship of the thing — even the formatting, as I tweak line spacing and fonts to keep it on the front and back of a single printed page — that somehow transcends the actual content. Whenever I’m the primary author of a group report, I always want more than “something everyone will sign onto.” I want a piece of writing that won’t embarrass me.

This misplaced pride afflicted me even in grad school, when I made extra money by writing up mutual fund reports. Obviously the content is fairly stereotyped, and I developed a range of synonyms to cycle through each piece. When I received queries that claimed my carefully honed wording was confusing or misleading, I felt defensive — and then immediately felt ashamed, because who cares? Indeed, I’m still not even sure who read those reports, if anyone.

One hard lesson I learned in that process is that when you receive a query, it’s never sufficient to explain why what you already wrote suffices. You have to make some kind of token change to satisfy the demand. And doesn’t the same thing apply in academia? Don’t editors sometimes advise us to tweak certain things as a way of going through the motions of peer review? Don’t we all instinctively know that saying, “No, the way I had it was fine and the problem is yours” is no way to make your way through academia?

We may chafe at it, but I think our academic writing is often more like those committee reports or mutual fund results than like an authentic expression of our creativity. At every level, we are writing to order at least to some extent. This is true of journalists, obviously, but also of other more traditionally “creative” fields. Whenever we write, someone else is party to it. Someone has to sign onto it, or someone is paying us, or someone is lending us a sliver of their prestige — and they want to leave their mark.

Sometimes I am puzzled that my students seem so stressed out when I tell them they can choose their own topic. But then I reflect that I’m mainly thinking of older students, who should be “past that” — i.e., they should know how to generate a topic within the implicit boundaries. I’m not expecting them to be genuinely creative or self-expressive, but to have caught on to “the kind of thing” that one writes in an academic paper at our peculiar school. I wonder, though, if even the pretense of open-endedness is serving them poorly — or if I should at least include an explicit requirement that they “pitch” their topic to me ahead of time. Cruellest of all, perhaps, is the marriage of open-ended free exploration and exacting judgment.

Self-undermining behavior

This semester, all my classes have been grouped together so that I’m done teaching by 1. This may seem to leave a wonderland of free time for writing and research, but experience tells me that is not the case. While I enjoy Shimer classes a great deal, I am an introvert and hence I am usually exhausted by the end of three back-to-back 80-minute sessions in which I have to be “always on,” both intellectually and socially (to help manage the dynamics of the class). Serious creative work is out of the question by that point — sometimes even reading on the train ride home feels like a struggle.

Early on, I realized that translation was a much better fit for my mental headspace after class. I was pleased with this, because it allowed me to put otherwise dead time to a good use other than doing laundry. For the first half of the semester or so, I made significant progress on my translation, putting me well ahead of the pace I needed to get it finished on time.

So naturally, at a certain point I decided that I needed to try to force myself to write on those afternoons. The result would be that I would squeeze out a paragraph or so, but spend most of the time hovering on Twitter. Then I would be frustrated with myself and despair of ever finishing the writing project in question.

On one level, I understand why I made this switch. Due to my extra CTS class, I only have one free day this semester, so it makes sense to try to find other windows for writing. Yet the project that I’ve been so prioritizing is not due until a week after classes end — and since I’m not traveling for Thanksgiving, that is a full week I have free, during which I can very easily finish the piece. I then have another piece due a couple weeks after that, but again, I will have a much more open schedule.

In the end, I think I just became obsessed with being “done” with my overwhelming amount of work for the semester. But even that would have been self-undermining, because history teaches me that when I don’t have a project to work on during break periods, I quickly become listless and depressed. So the net result of this totally gratuitous prioritization of a project that could easily wait is that I have needlessly halted progress on my translation, generated a trivial portion of the article (which could have been achieved in an afternoon had I chosen more hospitable circumstances), and ranted a lot on Twitter.

What about you, readers? Have you found yourself caught in self-undermining cycles lately?

Adventures in Revision

Due to my impending travel, I’m going through a weird period where I have simultaneously a lot of downtime and no time at all. Hence it seems like a good time to “pick off” relatively small tasks. One such task is the revision of a talk into a proper article for an edited volume. I agreed to do this a year ago and then set it aside, and so I needed to reconnect with what I was trying to say in the talk. During several intense dog walks and showers, I developed a strategy of revision that would leave virtually no stone standing upon another — I’d need to expand this, elaborate that, temper this overstatement, reorganize this segment completely, etc., etc.

Then I thought, “Well, before I get ahead of myself, I should look at the abstract I sent to the editor so that I know what I actually promised.” And as it turns out, this bold new vision for the essay was… exactly what I had put in the original abstract a year ago.

Posted in Writing. Comments Off on Adventures in Revision

“clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.”

[Re-posting this old piece of mine — conjuring days of old in the spirit of May Day.]

Dear ________,

You misunderstand me, so let me be clear: I do not want the City to “support” the Occupy movement or its Commune. Indeed, though I risk misunderstanding yet again so soon after such momentary clarity, I think it would be very foolish public policy for them to do so. Much better, I think, to go the disingenuous route of the Councilperson whose letter you’ve attached, and insist on a vapid sympathy.

While I agree with the message of the Occupy movement and consider myself, along with all City Employees, including the men and women in our Police Department, to be part of the 99%, I disagree that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza, shutting down the Port, or calling for a general strike against our City, is going to impact the 1% that this movement is supposed to be targeting.

What genius is on display here in one of the more nakedly clumsy co-opting of populism in my recent memory. The Councilperson doesn’t even bother to give the dignity of a period to his agreement. Here in the opening paragraph of his letter, the feeblest of commas is all that separates his agreement with “the message of the Occupy movement” and his self-consideration as “part of the 99%” from the declarative strongman of this magnificent sentence, “I disagree.” Provided the Occupy movement does not camp, strike, or shut down a port, which is to say, provided it does precisely nothing it has in actual fact done the past three weeks, he supports it completely. The only reservation he has concerning the Occupy movement is its actual existence. Would that it could be but a “message”! — by all means, a call to be dissatisfied, even angry, but to be so at home, please, as quietly as possible, yes, at least until election day, when those so called might vote for cynical opportunists like himself.

This Councilperson is in the minority, I believe, in his clumsiness, but not in the desire to show support for the Occupy movement on his own terms. And while I understand perfectly well why the City, all of its administrative stars & ideological stripes, would go this route, I fear you don’t appreciate why the Occupy movement would do well to develop a strong allergy to any & all public expressions of sympathy by those who are formally in (or are seeking formal) power. It seems to me that the moment a city officially loses the “but” after its stated solidarity is the moment the truth of this allegiance has been lost — clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted. (Or, I should add, it is the day after a revolutionary upheaval. But, alas, I am not at all confident any of us have enough dying light remaining actually to see that morning. Rome was not unbuilt in a day, as a friend said to me recently, and arguably our allotment of days are insufficient to the cause, if not the struggle itself.)

So, in close, while we agree that the Commune should remain illegal, I have no interest in its relocation. I would much prefer that it be declared illegal and remain exactly where it is, in order that it might continue to test the City’s ability to uphold the consequences of that illegality. The gross flouting of the law–or at least its outright disregard–this is what seems necessary to expose its many inadequacies (& those of its administrators). In this way, the Commune’s symbolic value as a site of disobedience is also the unavoidable germ of its undoing. The present age, you’ve insisted in the past, has had very little real use for such symbols, but are either of us yet prepared to say the same of the future that remains?


Posted in politics, Rhetoric, Writing. Comments Off on “clumsiness & truth are so often intertwined we tend to take their copulation for granted.”

More Punctuation: Mary Ruefle on the Poetry of Semicolons

Adam’s post below on commas reminded me of Mary Ruefle’s on semicolons in the opening lecture of her book Madness, Rack, and Honey (note the Oxford comma in the title). Semicolons these days have garnered something of a bad reputation, w/ a good many going the way of Cormac McCarthy and rooting them out near and far. I’m with Ruefle, though; there may be no punctuation truer to our speech.

Now here is something really interesting (to me), something you can use at a standing-up-only party when everyone is tired of hearing there are one million three thousand two hundred ninety-five words used by the Eskimo for snow. This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed–English among them–that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.

When I told Mr. Angel about the lifelong sentence, he said: “That’s a lot of semicolons!” He is absolutely right; the sentence would be unwieldy and awkward and resemble the novel of a savant, but the next time you use a semicolon (which, by the way, is the least-used mark of punctuation in all of poetry) you should stop and be thankful that there exists this little thing, invented by a human being–an Italian as a matter of fact–that allows us to go on and keep on connecting speech that for all apparent purposes is unrelated.

You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature is to fly apart. Between the first and last lines there exists–a poem–and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other.


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